East Berlin goes West

by Neil.Geraghty

The reinvention of old East Berlin shows this cosmopolitan city is now giving the West a run for its money

How time flies! It’s already 20 years since the fall of the Berlin Wall, and celebrations in Germany’s stylish capital city are in full swing. For the last 20 years Berlin has been busy doing what it does best, namely reinventing itself. The fall of the Wall was just the latest high point in a roller coaster ride that has taken the city from pinnacles of creativity to the depths of despair.
This tumultuous history has given its inhabitants a restless chameleon-like quality and a fascination for social experimentation that at times seems more Californian than Central European. In recent years the wounds of the cold war have been healed with an astonishing explosion of cutting edge design, with the likes of Foster, Piano and Liebeskind transforming the city into a showcase of 21st-century architecture. It’s a breathtaking achievement, and Berlin has every reason to throw a huge anniversary party.
Nowhere can you see the transformation better than in the old East Berlin district of Mitte. This area was once a byword for East German dowdiness but nowadays resembles a giant outdoor lounge bar. Funky seating is currently the big style statement, the wackier the better. Expect to find 1970s sofas and bean bags thrown haphazardly onto the pavements.
They provide a wonderfully surreal backdrop to enjoy Berlin’s equally surreal home brew, Berliner Weisse mit Schuss. This refreshing sour wheat beer comes sweetened with electric green woodruff syrup (Waldmeister) and gives the bizarre impression that everybody is drinking Freshburst Listerine!
It’s in Mitte that you’ll find Berlin’s new generation of designer hotels and right now luxury serviced apartments are the ultimate in chic city-centre living. Lux 11 is one of the sleekest examples and, in common with many buildings in East Berlin, appearances can be deceptive. A softly curving Art Nouveau façade hints at opulent fin de siècle grandeur but instead conceals a startlingly angular, contemporary interior. Every place has a story to tell in Berlin and Lux 11 is no exception. Its various incarnations have seen it transformed into a World War Two hospital and then converted into apartments for officers in the Soviet and GDR armies. During renovation work, miles of mysterious wiring was found, which begs the question: just who was spying on whom? In a wink to its intriguing Communist heritage, Lux 11’s logo incorporates a cheeky little pink Communist star. 
Step outside into the street and you’re in the heart of Berlin’s Soho, which stretches along Rosa Luxemburg Strasse towards Hackescher Markt. The First World War socialist heroine would turn in her grave if she saw the sparkling capitalist boutiques lining her namesake street, but one thing East Berlin has discovered with a vengeance since the fall of the Wall is a passion for designer shopping.
Drop into Ulf Haines on the ground floor of Lux 11 to rifle through a superb collection of monochrome couture from the likes of Helmut Lang, Commes des Garcons and Christophe Lemaire. Berlin is the perfect city to stock up on unnecessary home accessories, and Puri Design, next door to the hotel, has an Aladdin’s cave of exquisite Japanese paper wall hangings and elongated African reed vases.
In an ironic post-Cold War twist, West Berlin, once the showpiece of western capitalism, is looking positively passé compared to the scrubbed up East. Getting off the S Bahn at Zoo is like entering an episode of Life on Mars and for 1970s aficionados the grungy waffle-fronted shopping centres offer one of the most retro cityscapes on the planet.
However, West Berlin is not giving up the ghost lightly and has begun the style fight-back, most notably with its biggest asset, KaDeWe, the largest department store in Europe. KaDeWe celebrated its 100th anniversary in 2007, and has been totally renovated, creating 60,000 m² of sparkling, deco-inspired retail heaven. In truth, Berlin’s nippy climate is far more suited to department-store-shopping than boutique-hopping, and there’s no better place to fritter away a snowy winter’s afternoon. Don’t miss the wonderful 6th and 7th floor food halls, where you can grab a lunch of delicious smoky bratwurst, followed by the most glorious cake and strudel selection in Berlin.
Back in East Berlin, Unter den Linden, once the nerve centre of Communist oppression, has reclaimed its position as the most glamorous boulevard in Berlin. At its western end, the Brandenburg Gate, once cruelly bisected by the Berlin Wall, has been given a gleaming makeover and is beautifully framed by the new feathery light Bauhaus-style embassies and arts complexes built around Pariser Platz. For a breathtaking sunset view of the Brandenburg Gate, order a Weisse on the terrace in front of the newly rebuilt Adlon hotel, which was once the grande dame of 1920s Cabaret Berlin.
From here it’s just a short stroll to the Reichstag, Germany’s thunderously impressive parliament building, where Norman Foster’s world-famous swirling steel and glass dome is now the city’s most popular tourist landmark. Entrance numbers are strictly controlled, so there’s always a long queue, but the stunning architecture and fabulous views are well worth the long wait.
Of course, no trip to Berlin is complete without a visit to the Wall. Only a few stretches have been preserved, most notably the East Side Gallery, which stretches for over a kilometre along the river Spree close to the Ost Bahnhof. It’s located in a fittingly grim, industrial part of the city and the first impression you get is how low it is. Factor in miles of barbed wire, ferocious guard dogs and armed guards firing at will, and it soon sends shivers down your spine. Nowadays the psychedelic 1990s murals have faded and are covered in two decades' worth of political graffiti courtesy of the world’s youth. The pearls of wisdom range from totally unoriginal (John Lennon lyrics) to pithy words of advice ('turn on, tune in but don’t drop out') - and wandering around this kaleidoscope city it’s impossible not to be tuned in.


I grew up in a naval family and caught the travel bug when my father was posted first to the Caribbean and then to Papua New Guinea. As a teenager in PNG I developed a deep fascination in South East Asian and Pacific cultures and subsequently enrolled as a student at the School of Oriental and African studies in London where I studied Anthropology and Indonesian. In my final year I spent 6 months in the Sumatran Highlands researching a project on Pencak Silat an Indonesian martial arts form. After graduation I started teaching English and in the early 90s settled in Istanbul where I began freelance writing. Now based in London I specialise in lifestyle and travel writing and contribute regular features to The Scotsman, Easyjet Inflight and GT magazines Favourite places: Kas, Turkey Arequipa, Peru Antigua, Guatemala Trobriand Islands, Papua New Guinea Huahine, French Polynesia Budapest, Brussels, Istanbul, San Francisco, Venice and Rome